The Jornada del Muerto was ominous and respected, yet part of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. A picturesquely beautiful desert of sun and sand, which remains one of New Mexico’s most distinctive landmarks, and whose history comprises one of the West’s most fascinating legacies of the past.
As a geographic name, “Jornada del Muerto” is the desert region the Conquistadors had to cross to make it from Las Cruces, NM. to Soccoro, NM. As a name-place, “Jornada del Muerto” is a loose translations of “single day’s journey of the dead man“ hence “route of the dead man”) in the U.S. state of New Mexico was the name given by the Spanish conquistadors to the Jornada del Muerto Desert basin, and the particularly dry 100-mile (160 km) stretch of a route through it. The trail led northward from central Spanish colonial New Spain, present-day Mexico, to the farthest reaches of the viceroyalty in northern Nuevo México Province. The route later became a section of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
It took the Spanish caravans one and a half years to make the trip from Mexico City to Santa Fe and back. The journey was extremely dangerous. Travelers died of thirst, heat, disease, and Indian attacks. One Spaniard who survived the trail wrote, “Oh Dios, qué tierra tan solitaria,” “Oh God, what a lonely land.”
When Juan de Onate began his journey in January 1598 from Santa Barbara, Mexico just south of Chihuahua, he carved a new and shorter trail as part of the Camino Real through the desert north of El Paso, nearly a quarter of a century before the Mayflower sailed from England.
The journey started from Santa Barbara, Chihuahua. There were 400 men, some were military and some had their families with them. They had 83 carretas (wooden wheel wagons), seven to eight thousand livestock – horses, sheep, goats, etc. Together this formed a four-mile long procession through the desert. It was a long journey. Four days before arriving at the Rio Grande, somewhere near what is now San Elizario, they ran out of water. Their written records tell us that when they arrived at the river on April 20, 1598, two of their horses drank so much water; they burst their sides and died. They rested under the cottonwood trees for ten days; they swam, fished and hunted. There was a lot of wild life and vegetation in those days. Since the Rio Grande was a powerful river, it often flooded the area in the spring.
By 1821, American traders had blazed the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico linking the United States and Mexico. Wagons carrying manufactured goods from the east coast and Europe poured into what is now New Mexico. Many American traders continued on down the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to Chihuahua City in Mexico. In 1846 during the Mexican War, US troops invaded New Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail. By 1850 Mexico had lost almost half of its territory to the United States.
Routes expanded from the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from Okay Owingeh and Santa Fe east towards Las Vegas, up to Watrous, Cimarron, Trinidad and up to Colorado.
Trade along the Santa Fe Trail from the United States was forbidden by both governments, but it took place anyway. New Mexico needed goods and Spain was too far away. The Americans were much closer. In 1821 just south of what is now Las Vegas, NM, 400 soldiers, militia and some Pueblo Indians met a train of Missouri traders. They told the Missourians that Mexico had overthrown Spanish rule. Commerce between the US on the Santa Fe Trail was now open!
The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) was chartered on February 11, 1859, to join Atchison and Topeka, Kansas, with Santa Fe, New Mexico. . In its early years, the railroad opened Kansas to settlement.
Much of its revenue came from wheat grown there and from cattle driven north from Texas to Wichita and Dodge City by September 1872. Rather than turn its survey southward at Dodge City, AT&SF headed southwest over Raton Pass because of coal deposits near Trinidad, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico. AT&SF reached Albuquerque in 1880; Santa Fe, the original destination of the railroad, found itself on a short branch from Lamy, New Mexico.
The American section of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro became a stagecoach route and a string of forts were built along the road to protect travelers from Indian attacks.
After the Civil War which ended in 1865, the Camino Real slowly lost its importance to the United States. The Navajo and Apache were defeated in the Indian Wars and made prisoners of the United States. Their land was taken away and they were removed to reservations we still have today, the Navajo Reservation and Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache reservations. The forts were abandoned that once protected the travelers along the Camino Real.